Song of a Potted Plant

George W. G. explores the migrant experience from the inside

It is, rather, a ‘song of a plant in a pot’, I guess. How dare a potted plant put out roots; reach out for air, water and the minerals required for its growth? The flowers and fruits a plant in a pot can bear are restricted according to the size and shape and location of the pot itself. The truth is that any plant can be kept in a pot, separated from its native species. Plants in pots live in a world of conformity and oppression; a situation of standing choked, feeling trapped, or living only in part. This is the song of a potted plant.

Culture, politics, religion and educational systems are all forms of pots in which people find themselves. In most cases, these pots are forced upon people. You do not choose and neither can you refuse the particular pot in which you find yourself.

I come from Uganda, where sometimes culture overrides reason, religion in most cases conflicts with culture and more often than not education does not help out at all. Politics of tribe and religion is regrettable in all aspects. Since independence in 1962, apart from the eight years from 1971-79 when Idi Amin, a Muslim, ruled Uganda, there has always been an Anglican Protestant president. The incumbent has ruled Uganda since 1986. Goodness gracious! Thirty solid years – and he is standing for election again in 2016!

What a hard and concrete pot this is. We have seen inequality, discrimination, persecution, poverty. Culture and religion in Uganda provide no chance for divergent thinking or living, lest you become ‘the enemy of the people’. Needless to say: in Uganda, culture, religion and education are manipulated to propel a narrow political agenda from the national level to the grassroots.

When I chose to stand for the inclusion of marginalised individuals in schools, I knew it was a matter of time. Admittedly, I appreciated my culture, religion and education; these were the concrete pots I had grown up to know, even when I felt squashed, like so many other unheard voices. Sometimes transplantation can be to the benefit of a plant, but I was uprooted completely. I was rejected, persecuted and told I was vile. I no longer had a place in my motherland.

When migrants leave their countries of origin, the loss is immense. Loss of self, culture, profession, possessions and family. I grew up in a culture that believes a child is a communal responsibility but that is also quick to condemn: more often than not inequality, exclusion and violence are more prevalent than the virtues of a ‘tight-knit community’. The state lends no hand of help to the victim. Individuals are crushed as much as organised social groups. In the face of persecution, I lost confidence and self-esteem. When death was imminent, I fled to the UK.

For every refugee, there is at least one thing that reminds them of the journey’s long days and nights. For me it is the belt my brother made, its markings and extra holes symbolic of happy days and years of struggle. Tefiro from Eritrea carried a traditional bead necklace his father gave him as he fled the country. ‘It is the only point of connection I hang on without despair.’ Abed, from Iraq, holds small denominations of currency from different countries across Europe, connecting the dots of his story. Turkey, Greece, Italy, France. One more little story that remains outside of the big story that continues to engulf individual lives.

In 2014, after several years in England, I arrived in Wales, carried by the mighty tidal River Usk into the heart of Newport. Local people have been happy to respond to my questions, sharing a heritage that I have understood to involve hard work in coalmines and steelworks, a love of music and sport and many previous waves of immigration. We attended rugby matches at Rodney Parade where I made friends with locals in an effort to understand the rules of the game. And at the local library, I learned of the Irish ‘mudcrawlers’ who made their way to the workhouse on Stow Hill, a hundred and fifty years before many now make the same walk in search of community and belonging. Personally, I have found help whenever I needed it, enabling me cope with my situation. I feel a sense of belonging to the community here, contrary to what I experienced in England.

Attending a traditional Sunday dinner provided by Bethel Community Church in Newport, we counted 25 nationalities at table, excluding the hosts from Wales, England and Ireland. Discussing the contents of our plates, we found it difficult to use the word ‘food’ – to each of us this general term means something specific. To most Ugandans, food refers to matooke (plantain). From Kenya southwards in Africa food is cornmeal called by different names: ugali, shima, saza; from Nigeria across the Democratic Republic of Congo, food is fufu (pounded yam and cassava). Of course, rice is the staple across much of Asia, notwithstanding myriad styles of preparation. After our roast beef, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables, the conversation continued with open minds.

Noticeably, food and language take the centre in migrants’ recovery of the self they lost in the process of fleeing their countries of origin. Refugees keep ‘community clusters’ for good reasons. People like to eat food that they are used to and speak their native language, which is healthy for self-identity. Nonetheless, the local language (in this case, English) is paramount if one is to access local services. And I have observed among my fellow asylum seekers and refugees that a lack of English language is a major impediment to integration.

Having a professional background in teaching English, I took up the challenge of teaching the male asylum seekers and refugees attending the Sanctuary project run by the church I had attended. The class started with just two men. By the end of 2014 we had about 20 learners. In 2015, we saw the average attendance rise to 45 per session. Imagine 45 men from over 20 nationalities and cultures, with varied abilities and attitudes, working together to fit into yet another culture and language!

Scholars seem to agree that language and culture are intertwined. As I set up to teach, I need to plan for the inevitable. Cultural crash and clash in relation to language use. Even body language and nonverbal communication cause problems. One student from Iran got into trouble when indicating the number two to a lady who took offence at the way he was holding his fingers. After years of exposure and practice, I find it easy to make eye contact as expected in the West – yet in most cultures among my fellow migrants, eye contact is seen as a sign of disrespect.

As the language sessions progress, there is noticeable integration as a result of sharing good practice. Open discussion comparing the similarities and differences of body language with intent to understand the meaning has been the way forward. I must admit that owing to my own culture, it has taken me a while to cope with some common aspects of body language in the West – especially a wink.

Migrants endeavour to recover the lost self in many ways. Dress is another, especially for women. Observing the long trails of migrants in our news media, you hardly see the traditional ‘faith wear’ – all we see is ‘crisis wear’. After the crossover, steadily people begin to rediscover themselves. But in some instances, women break out of the pots in which they have lived their entire lives, refusing to be replanted. From my understanding, many days spent on land and sea are sometimes enough to bring about a more lasting change in lifestyle.

Despite the reality, many migrants (asylum seekers and refugees) struggle to accept their status quo, as their past seems fresh daily. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, says that the anti-migrant language that seems to place hierarchy on the value of human life leaves migrants as equal bystanders: ‘Something terrible is happening when political leaders and the media are able to drip disdain on unspeakable human suffering. Without this sense of common humanity, it is no wonder that policy interventions are so hollow.’

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist, yet how easy can it be for a refugee to accept freedom when they have known oppression their whole lives? Migrants will tell you that it takes a little while to realise they are around people who love, care and listen.

People exist as individuals so much like plants. Take garlic mustard; it produces chemicals poisonous to the growth and existence of other plants. Tamarisk consumes all the water, regardless of other plants and aquatic habitats. Yet plantain is gentle and able to coexist with most plants.

I thought I could find a point relevant to all migrant plants in the words of actor D’Andre Lampkin: ‘Groom yourself and your life like a shrub. Trim off the edges and you’ll be stronger in the broken places. Embrace the new growth and blossom at the tips.’

Let the potted plants sing their song, after all.

George W. G. teaches English at The Sanctuary, a project for refugees and asylum seekers in Newport. This piece first appeared in the 56th issue of the welsh agenda.

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